Literature The Authentic in Fiction: Aris Janigian’s Bloodvine (Part 1 of 2)

After several articles on topical subjects, I would like to discuss a novel published before the advent of Critics’ Forum–Aris Janigian’s Bloodvine (Heyday, 2003; Great Valley Books, 2005; all page references are to the later edition). Perhaps the nearly four years that have passed since its publication will help provide some perspective on the novel. Reviews at the time of publication ranged from the lukewarm–Booklist noting the author’s "obviously heartfelt effort"–to the overblown–the San Francisco Chronicle comparing Janigian to William Saroyan. Ironically, the novel was also a finalist for Stanford University’s William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, in the category of fiction, in 2005. A close look at Bloodvine reveals a good first effort but one whose flaws and missteps say as much about the current state of English-language Armenian literature as they do about the novel itself. The premise of Bloodvine originates in autobiography. Janigian’s father, nearing death, calls his son to his native Fresno and tells him the story of the rift (the novel later calls it a "kehn") between him and his brother, a subject that to that point the father has avoided bringing up with his son. In the book’s prologue, Janigian maintains that his father’s deathbed confession drove him to investigate the matter and write about it, albeit in fictional form. The characterization of the work as fiction is a critical one. The novel is certainly a fictional retelling of the feud that took place between two brothers, now named Andy (Antranik) Demerjian and Abe (Abraham) Voskijian, in and around 1950’s Fresno. But it also harbors what might be called more "historical" ambitions. Perhaps as a result, the reader feels the need both to connect with the novel and judge it by the yardstick of its own ambitions, ones that, unfortunately, it is not quite able to live up to. The first few pages of Bloodvine make it clear that the novel’s fate is intertwined with the history of the Genocide. We learn early on that Andy and Abe are actually half-brothers. Abe’s father, a gentleman in his community, is killed by Turkish soldiers. His mother escapes the pogroms and makes her way to Fresno, where she meets another immigrant, Yervant. Andy is the first of two children and the only son the mother bears with her second husband. Yervant turns out to be quite a volatile man, prone to pathological behavior and fits of violence, most of which he directs toward his wife’s first-born son, Abe. We also find out that Yervant’s father (Andy’s grandfather), Jonig, may have been an "agha," a Turkish sympathizer who saved himself and his family by betraying the whereabouts of other Armenia’s. The novel’s central storyline turns on this seminal event. Abe marries Zabel, and together they have three children. Andy marries much later in the novel and continues until then to live with Abe’s family on land that her mother has willed to her two sons. This uncomfortable living arrangement eventually precipitates the feud between the brothers, which the novel makes clear is also instigated by Abe’s wife, Zabel. The larger issue at stake is what Zabel refers to as the family’s bad luck, or "pakht," and which she is certain has revealed itself in the family’s disastrous harvests and business dealings. Zabel attributes their collective pakht to Andy, the ill-begotten son, and through him to Yervant, and through Yervant to his father and what we might call his "original sin" (92-3). From Zabel’s perspective, the fact that Andy is a "cripple" (one of his legs is shorter than the other) may be explained biologically–he had polio as a child–but must be understood genealogically–he is the descendant of a traitor. The impetus behind this genealogical perspective is the novel’s own worldview. In the prologue, Janigian characterizes his novel as "old-fashioned," which no doubt it is. But its emphasis on the relationships between fathers and sons and the propagation of sin, treachery and violence also suggests a profoundly biblical perspective. The brothers’ story, in fact, concludes in an act of betrayal reminiscent of the Old Testament story of Jacob and Esau. A few years after Andy signs his half of the land over to Abe to help secure a GI loan, on a handshake, Abe kicks Andy off the land, denying him what Andy feels is his birthright, just as in the biblical story, Jacob tricks his older brother, Esau, into signing over his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. Jacob will later also trick his father (who bears the name of one of the brothers in the novel, Abraham) into giving him his blessing. In the biblical story, Jacob is his mother Rebecca’s favorite, as in the novel the maternal Zabel (Abe’s pet name for her is "Ma") prefers Abe. This somewhat weighty purpose intrudes itself into the novel at various points–we are subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, made to remember that the scenery of Fresno and the surrounding valleys is imbued with a larger, almost metaphorical, character signifying the mysterious connection between land and blood suggested in the novel’s title. The book’s very first scene, in fact, makes this point quite explicitly. A bishop and a priest are on their way to visit the Voskijians, in order to "exorcise" their land of the curse Zabel is convinced has befallen it. As they near their destination, the bishop looks out of the car window at the grapevines and remarks (8): But in the old country . . . I don’t remember the vines growing this way, that is, strung up like criminals on wires. No, we had bush vines and they grew everywhere wild. There was a bitter-skin grape, obsidian black. I recall ruby-color grapes that took the shape of teardrops. The very land itself, it seems, is a symbol of its people’s apparent fate, bearing its fruits in the shape of tears. And just in case we miss that metaphorical point, the bishop adds a little further on (8): "[T]he vines in Armenia date back from the time of our Lord. Just imagine, brother, the pestilence, the flood and fire, the drought and terrible earthquake they’ve endured. They," he said in a survivor’s emotional voice, "have proven as resilient as the Armenian people themselves." The larger point, however, is somewhat more intriguing–the suggestion of a kind of fall from grace, from an edenic homeland that cannot be recreated anywhere else, as the bishop once again makes clear (9): He traced the Sierras with a finger. "Their Mount Ararat, this. And these canals," he swept his hand over the dry one they drove across, "their Mother River, Arax. What no book will tell you is these poor, desperate people have tried to resurrect the homeland here, brother, to make natural what is alien. But what cheap copies! Our Ararat would swallow in one gulp all the mountains in America combined." Ironically, later in the novel, Andy’s wife Kareen, an Armenian born in Egypt, will compare the same expanse of land unflatteringly to her own birthplace, Alexandria (167). Janigian does more than suggest the simple nostalgia for homeland or home in this passage; he captures something of the tragic desire for return that seems to propagate itself endlessly, hopelessly, in the immigrant experience. The other side of that desire, the novel seems to suggest, is the kind of hatred born of betrayal, a product of an agha’s actions as much as a result of the Genocide as such. That hatred turns to self-hatred in the brothers’ story, culminating in the final act of betrayal captured in the title. We can hear its whispers even early on, in the bishop’s repeated reference to the priest as "brother" (as in the two extended quotations above). To the novel’s credit, the tension between brotherly love and a hatred born of blind allegiance to land is never quite resolved. Even at the very end of the novel, before he "betrays" his brother Andy, Abe tells him, "brothers is one thing, this land’s another" (252). But after the event, Andy declares to himself, "your life has changed, Andy. In a matter of minutes, thirty years of brotherhood is pulverized. Over what? Over a piece of dirt" (265). [Look for Part 2 of this article in next week’s issue.] Hovig Tchalian holds a PhD in English literature from UCLA. He has edited several journals and also published articles of his own. You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at comments@criticsforum.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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